Sunday, September 20, 2009

DR News: Of Surplus, Supremes and Spendthrifts

The Legislature's Surplus & The Impasse
There's a case to be made that the legislature's $200+ million surplus caused this year's budget impasse. The surplus allowed lawmakers to take their time passing a budget and feel no pain.

Few believe that the harm inflicted during the budget impasse would have occurred if lawmakers and their staff faced the same payless paydays they have inflicted upon tens of thousands of citizens. In fact, the budget impasse of 1991 ended after a little more than a month largely because legislative staff could not afford to go without pay any longer.

In any event, budget negotiators last week released a list of recurring revenues and one-time revenues. Conspicuously absent from the list of one-time revenues is anything from the legislature's surplus. While Senate Republicans said as recently as Friday that they think the legislature should contribute half of its surplus, the rhetoric and the reality continue to exist on entirely different planets. Unless the final list of revenues that mere mortals (i.e. taxpayers) are not yet allowed to see includes surplus funds, nothing will have changed.

But even if the legislature cut its surplus to $100 million, that would still be enough money for lawmakers to hold up some future budget by four months without feeling any pain.

  • How can lawmakers look a child in the eye who has no day care, or a battered woman who has no shelter, or an unemployed family who has no food, and say that it's better to have $100 million sitting around doing nothing but waiting to fund the next budget impasse? Wasn't this one bad enough for them?
  • Will Gov. Ed Rendell line item veto enough of the legislature's budget to force them to use their surplus this year?
  • Why should citizens tolerate the legislature having any surplus at all when state programs that benefit citizens are prohibited from having a surplus?
The Supreme Court and the Budget Impasse
In 2002, the PA Supreme Court invalidated PA's lobbying control law. Unlike every other state Supreme Court, ours found that the legislature could not regulate lawyers, even when they were acting as lobbyists instead of lawyers. This egregious decision opened the door for gambling interests, aided and abetted by a compliant governor, to make PA the slot machine capital of the East Coast in 2004. It wasn't until the backlash from the Pay Raise of 2005 that the legislature finally enacted a mediocre law to regulate lobbying beginning in 2007.

Now the gambling interests want table games. So right on cue, our Supreme Court earlier this year invalidated the slots law's prohibition against campaign contributions by gambling interests. Once again, ours may be the only state Supreme Court to prohibit its legislature from saying that some special interests may not make campaign contributions.

Legislative leaders promised to close this new gap in public protection, but nothing has happened. Lawmakers face tough re-election campaigns next year and may look to gambling interests to fuel their campaigns.

Thanks to a campaign finance law that the Better Government Association,, gives a score of 45 on a scale of 100, it's too soon to know just how much money political leaders are collecting. PA remains one of only 12 states that place no limit on the size of campaign contributions, so the sky's the limit.

Time will tell whether lawmakers and Gov. Rendell are cashing in once again on a conspicuously awful and potentially corrupt Supreme Court decision. They certainly filled their pockets before the slots law passed, and nothing that has happened since gives citizens reason to hope that this aspect of capitol corruption has changed, thanks to our Supreme Court.

There is one ray of hope, however. Rep. David Levdansky, D-Allegheny, has introduced House Bill 1910 , which would place limits on campaign contributions: $2,400 per person for statewide races and $500 per person for legislative and county races. Political action committees (PACs) could make contributions up to $5,000, depending on how many people have donated to the PAC. Levdansky's bill also prohibits candidates from using campaign funds for any "inherently personal purpose," such as paying the mortgage, buying clothes or taking a vacation.

The bad news is that HB 1910 was assigned to the House State Government Committee, which has proven to be the burial ground for public integrity in recent years.

Speaking of Feeling No Pain
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Brad Bumsted this week documented how well lawmakers are dining on our dime. On June 29, lawmakers spent $13,000 for catered meals, and on July 4 went whole hog and spent $20,000. This is on top of the $158 per diem they receive to cover their costs. Click here for the full story.

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